Halloween and the Clash of Religion

charlieBy Joe LaGuardia

For this week’s article, I researched the background of Halloween and All Saints Day.  After spending about an hour online, I found myself enjoying the research more than anything else because reading about these two holidays was like following Alice into that mysterious rabbit hole.  I didn’t know where I would end up.

It did not take long, however, before I discovered one simple truth about October 31: Halloween is a time in which various religious traditions clash and form a cultural quagmire of superstition and the sacred.  Allow me to explain.

Halloween is an ancient pagan holiday rooted in Druid and Celtic sects of Ireland.  It includes all of the superstitious beliefs for which Halloween is known, in particular the visitation by ghosts, spirits, the (un)dead, and the like on humanity’s earthly realm.  In the words of at least one online documentary, it was a time in which the season of life met the season of death, when the boundary between this world and the next became so thin, souls were able to venture to and fro.

The holiday also included celebrations for the summer harvest.  Since the days turned darker around autumn, the Celts celebrated the time of reaping the produce of the ground, storing foodstuffs in time for winter, and enacting religious rites to prepare for the upcoming months.   Halloween was a way of protecting these ancient tribesmen from that which haunted them in their darkest hour, namely famine or freezing or both.  They lit bonfires (now we light jack-o-lanterns) to ward off the dark and adorned costumes in order to fool evil spirits.  Creepy stuff for sure.

When the Catholic Church stumbled upon all things Halloween in the fourth century, the Church found many of those Celtic practices unacceptable for obvious reasons.  Pope Boniface IV stripped the holiday of all its pagan practices (the Catholic Church did the same for Saturnalia, which became Christmas, and Eoaster, or Easter) and replaced it with All Saint’s  or All-Hallow’s (all holy) Eve.

To this day, Christians celebrate All Saint’s Day on November 1.

That’s a long story made short, but there’s more.  Protestant Reformers in Germany came along and preferred neither Halloween nor All Saints Day.  Instead, they made October 31 Reformation Day.

Since many people in the United States are not willing to worship on October 31 because of all the Halloween hype, many churches simply dedicate the Sunday before Halloween as Reformation Sunday and the Sunday after as All Saints.

If you’re courageous, you can use this week as an excuse to worship twice.  Take our brothers and sisters at Epiphany Lutheran Church helmed by a new pastor, the Reverend David Armstrong-Reiner, for example: They celebrated Reformation Sunday last Sunday (no good Lutheran would miss it!), and they will celebrate All Saints tomorrow evening around 7 PM (call the church to confirm the time).  Now that’s a worship-filled congregation right there!

Suffice it to say, the last week of October is one in which many faith traditions intersect.  You may be a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or a Protestant, but we all hold something in common today: it is a time to remember the heroes and heroines of our faith.

You may choose to remember the pillars of the Church—Martin Luther, St. Patrick, or Mother Teresa to name a few.  Or you can choose to remember someone more personal: Grandma and Grandpa whose faith sparked your own belief in Jesus, or you may champion your old youth pastor who might have been a catalyst for your salvation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with remembering and celebrating the lives of our saints.  Even God is big on remembering the ancients; in the Old Testament He declared repeatedly that He is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

You may call today what you will—Halloween, All Saint’s Eve, Reformation Day, or just another good, ole’ Friday night—but at least be sure to thank God for giving us saints whom we can remember, admire, and cherish in our hearts.

A version of this article was originally published on Baptist Spirituality in October of 2009.

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“The Children are Listening”: An All Saints Day sermon

Father__Child_in_ParkSermon Title: “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” (a sermon for youth Sunday).
Text: 2 Timothy 1:3-7

I.

Last week, our liturgical artist (we’re too cool to have “worship leaders”) Isaac spoke about joining creation’s chorus by enlisting our gifts, our voices, and our very careers for the work of the Lord.  He told a story about his grandfather’s humming of hymns, which struck a chord with me through the entire week.

It was the Monday after he preached, in fact, that the children and I went to Publix.  They like to get one of those carts that have special seats for children right behind the actual cart.  While they talked or laughed or whatever they do on those carts, I concentrated on my grocery list, trying not to forget anything, when I realized that I was singing one of my favorite hymns:

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise, in the morning when I rise, give me Jesus
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus
You may have all this world; give me Jesus.

Then I noticed something else peculiar—Haleigh and Hayden stopped talking and playing and fidgeting.  Their ears were close to my mouth, and I realized they were listening.

The children listen.  I’m sure that this is a lesson you’ve learned along the way yourself, but we all need reminding.  When it comes to life and faith and conflict resolution and creativity and problem solving in the household or in our church or community, the children listen.

They listen when we talk about God and pray and of faith, and they also listen when we gossip or talk disrespectfully or fight unfairly.

I can only pray that someday Haleigh and Hayden can say the same things about me that Isaac said about his grandfather: that when it comes to faith and their father, they remember the singing and the praying and perhaps even the preaching more so than the impatience and the hustle-and-bustle of life.

This is an intimate wish, but when it comes to us adults and our children–all our children, not just the ones related to us–our relationships become an intimate affair.

II.

Unlike Paul’s first letter to his pastoral pupil, Timothy, Paul’s second letter to Timothy is extremely intimate because it doesn’t start with teachings or church doctrine or words of caution like the first letter.  Second Timothy starts with words of affection and remembrance, love and nurturing.

You may recall that Timothy had been with Paul from the very beginning of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.   In Acts 16, we read that Timothy came from a Christian household and had been a diligent student of scripture.  He was a prodigy of sorts, and Paul made sure to enlist him as a leader and missionary—Paul’s right-hand man.  Paul mentioned Timothy in a majority of his letters to churches throughout Asia Minor.  Timothy was busy; he was either coming or going to some far-off mission adventure.

The letters to Timothy are instruction manuals for how to run a church.  They are wise words from teacher to student; but, as I mentioned, the second letter in particular comes from the heart rather than the head.

Commentators note that when Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, he—Paul—was in a different place and so his language reflects a different sentiment.  By that time, Paul was imprisoned in Rome for a second time, and he was about to face execution.  This is a letter, in a manner of speaking, from a “Dead man walking.”

It is heavy with compassion and love, but it is serious in insuring that Timothy has all of the tools he needed to continue the ministry in Paul’s eventual absence.

Paul started the letter with their common bond in Christ and their common concern for one another.  Paul addressed him as a “beloved child,” and told him that he kept Timothy in constant prayer—there is poetry in this letter, “I remember you in my prayers night and day.”  How many of us can say we pray for our beloved loved ones “night and day?”

Paul wrote with such passion because he knew that when he dies, Timothy would be left alone in ministry.   In verse 4, we note that Timothy’s departure from Paul brought tears and grief; how much more grief would he face once Paul met the executioner’s sword?

I remember when I became pastor here at Trinity, I was excited to start this new adventure, but I was very anxious and very sad.  When I came into church to work that Monday after I got voted in, I found it to be very lonely—not because you and your prayers weren’t with me, but because I no longer had the constant, weekly companionship of Jim Martin (Trinity’s interim pastor) to enjoy.   Jim was only a phone-call away, but it wasn’t the same without him—and his leadership—on campus.  I can only imagine how Timothy must have felt.

But Paul gave Timothy a broader perspective: This Christian ministry to which they belonged, the faith formation that happened in life and church, and the very gospel which he and Timothy preached were but a small part of the larger plan that God had for the world.

They were not alone, but stood in the wider, deeper river of Christ’s Church and of history—Paul stood upon the shoulders of his fathers (v. 3) in Christian devotion, and Timothy stood in the company of his mother, Eunice and his grandmother, Lois.

Lois was the first Christian in Timothy’s household—she was the grandmother (to steal Isaac’s image) who hummed songs of faith in her grandchild’s ear, and she was the one who spoke scripture and talked about Jesus while he was growing up.   In 2 Timothy 3:14-15, Paul wrote this:

“But as for you, Timothy, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

How from childhood, you have known…This child, Timothy, was listening.  He listened to his grandmother and his mother, he listened to the stories of faith, and he followed Jesus as they had followed Jesus, with great faith and a pure heart and clear conscience.

Folks, I don’t know about you, but when I think of my own upbringing, how my parents have shaped my faith and, now, as a parent, how I have the potential to shape my children’s faith, I am confronted with a sense of awe and a sense of challenge—I realize that I—all of us—stand on the shoulders of great mentors, mothers and fathers, spiritual mothers and fathers, in the faith; and, if we are aware of it, that others will stand on our shoulders as well.

To use the language of Hebrews 12, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses; we forget that we too make up that cloud for others.

III.

This week coming up includes several holidays, Halloween—or “All Hollow’s Eve” if you want to be Christian about it.  This week also includes All Saints Day.  Technically, All Saints Day is next Sunday, but we are doing it early because we start a new sermon series on models of giving, so we’re a week early with this talk of saints.

All Saint’s Day is a day you likely associate with the Catholic Church.  We Protestants are skeptical of saints, and we’re always guarded when we talk of saints because many of us have bought into the myth that Catholics worship saints.  Sure, Catholics recognize great people of faith and have the office of sainthood; they have meals for these heroes and heroines of old almost every week, but that’s hardly worship.

All Saints Day is, at a basic level, an acknowledgement that we don’t walk alone in our faith, and that we have ancestors and teachers to thank.  We have ancestors and teachers to remember and to talk about.  We have ancestors who have poured into us and taught us the Bible and made faith real for us, who put feet to our faith and showed us the way.

When the Protestants came along during the Reformation, they didn’t abandon All Saint’s Day, they expanded it.  They took a second look at the Bible and realized that, according to the biblical understanding of saints, all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, all who are included in His church, are saints.

The great Reformer, Martin Luther, wrote:  “When we have repudiated this foolish and wicked notion about the name ‘saints’ which we suppose applies only to saints in heaven, and on earth to hermits and monks…then we can learn from the writings of the apostles that all believers in Christ are saints.”

We are all saints because all of us in one way or another are participating in a life of faith—we are either learning it from a saint, or we are passing it on to the saints that are coming before us, our children and teenagers.

IV.

Now, on hearing all about this stuff on saints, you may become a bit intimidated: “I am not a saint,” you may be tempted to say.  “Sinner, yes; good person, maybe; but saint?  I’m not so sure.”  I admit that the title of saint can be jarring.

There is a story of a Lutheran minister out in the Midwest who, like other Lutherans, practices infant baptism in his church.  Whenever he baptizes a baby, however, he celebrates the baby by carrying him or her around the sanctuary and calling it a saint, such as “Let us celebrate Saint so-and-so,” or “Look, its Saint so-and-so!”

This title is unusual and unfamiliar to us, but it tells us something about the gravity and the nature of our faith.  It speaks to our sense of responsibility and God’s holiness.  It reminds us that we are all stewards of our faith, not only to grow in it for ourselves, but to pass it on, to teach our children as Eunice and Lois did theirs.

If the children are listening, folks, then they hear us, and they observe, and they watch.  What are we communicating to them?  What are we singing or humming?  What are we modeling in our faith as a community of saints who have a holy God living among us?

You never know who is watching or listening. …You never know, but if we are intentional about sharing our faith, our sainthood with others and our children here in this place, then we may very well raise up the next Timothy on our midst.  You never know…but we do know one thing:  The children are listening.